Christian Singing: Its Necessity, History, Didactic Nature, and Teleology

Paul’s charge for the Christians at Ephesus to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” comes after his exhortation that they be filled with the Spirit, rather than be drunk with wine.

There are two general ways to understand Paul’s phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The first is that Paul is directly referring to the book of Psalms with all three references. The second is that it also includes uninspired songs. As we will see later, Calvin generally adopted the former in practice. But even he wrote, “What may be the exact difference between psalms and hymns, or between hymns and songs, it is not easy to determine.”


The fifth chapter of Ephesians contains an important verse related to singing and music: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with you heart” (v. 19). Of all the posts I have written, one has received far more views than any other. In early 2019, I wrote a blog post about singing the Psalms in church. That post, a satirical one entitled “Five Reasons Pastors Should Not Allow the Psalms to Be Sung in Church,” received 21 times as many views as my next most popular post in 2019. It easily received more traffic than all of my other posts combined. It seems that there are some issues that will always be hot-button topics. Music in the church may be one of those issues. One blogger wrote that “complaining about music is almost a universal phenomenon in the church today.”

In this post, I want to look at four main things about singing:

  1. Its Necessity
  2. Its History
  3. Its Didactic Nature
  4. Its Teleology

Along the way I hope to make a few points of application.

Its Necessity

Paul’s charge for the Christians at Ephesus to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” comes after his exhortation that they be filled with the Spirit, rather than be drunk with wine. All around the Ephesian Christians, the people were practicing their pagan religions. Singing was commonplace at the pagan Greek banquets. The Greeks had one god called Dionysus. And the Romans, it seems, named this god Bacchus. The term bacchanalian came to mean that which is “characterized by or given to drunken revelry,” as in “a bacchanalian orgy.” The pagans all around the Ephesian Christians were singing their songs to each other and to their “gods.” At their heathen feasts, they sang these “bacchanalian…licentious songs.” Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t sing.” He says, “Instead of singing those bacchanalian, those debauched songs, sing ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.’”

There are two general ways to understand Paul’s phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The first is that Paul is directly referring to the book of Psalms with all three references. The second is that it also includes uninspired songs. As we will see later, Calvin generally adopted the former in practice. But even he wrote, “What may be the exact difference between psalms and hymns, or between hymns and songs, it is not easy to determine.” The English Puritan Matthew Poole wrote:

Under these names [psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs] he comprehends all manner of singing to mutual edification [that’s key, more on that later] and God’s glory. The particular distinction of them is uncertain, but most take psalms to be such as anciently were sung with musical praise; hymns, such as contained only matter of praise; spiritual songs, such as were of various matter, doctrine, prophetical, historical etc.

John Gill, a Reformed Baptist of the 18th century, seemed to see a particular focus on the book of Psalms, but he also believed that uninspired “hymns and spiritual songs,” if consistent with Scripture, ought to be sung by Christians as well.

The main point is that the Apostle Paul contrasts the Spirit-filled Christian with the unbeliever in terms of the songs they sing—and the spirit in which they do it: sing godly songs “to the Lord with your heart.” This is not to be a mere formal exercise. Christians are not to merely flatter God with their lips. They are to sing with “thankfulness” in their hearts (Col. 3:16). Christians indeed have reason to sing, no matter how talented they are—for they have been redeemed from sin, delivered from the kingdom of darkness, forgiven of all their sins, given the Holy Spirit, brought into fellowship with the Triune God of the universe. If you can’t sing about that, then you have no pulse.

The general charge is clear: singing is one of the things that is to characterize our fellowship as Christians.

Its History

Debating music in the church is not a novelty in church history. Specifically, as the church made its way out of the darkness of Roman Catholicism during the Reformation, the issue of music in the church was an important one. I would like to give a brief, introductory overview of singing in church history. And I want to start with the Reformation, before going back further.

The practice of Christians singing together was largely lost with the rise of the Roman Catholic church. In the Roman Catholic church, prior to the Reformation, “congregations rarely spoke let alone sang during a church service” (Schuermann). If singing did occur it was performed by a select group of Monks, and it was in Latin. The idea of Christians singing one to another—congregational singing—was not acceptable. Martin Luther, perhaps the most famous reformer, is well-known for his (re)introduction of congregational singing. He sought a return to what he believed was the biblical and historical pattern: Christians gathering together and, among other things, singing.  Luther advocated that the church sing both the Psalms and thoughtfully-composed hymns. Carl Trueman notes that Luther relied on the Psalms, as they “provided both significant content for hymnody and paradigms to be followed in future compositions.” But Luther’s view was not accepted across the board by reformers.

A passage like Ephesians 5:19—addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with you heart—may seem like a clear-cut directive for congregational singing. However, throughout church history, it has not been so simple. We can identify at least three general approaches to this question of congregational singing/music coming out of the break from the Roman Catholic church: the Luther Approach, the Calvin Approach, and the Zwingli Approach. Let’s consider each of these approaches briefly before moving on.

The Luther Approach

As already mentioned, Luther believed in singing both Psalms and uninspired hymns in the gatherings of the church. He was very concerned with doctrinal purity—he wanted every song to be a clear expression of the truth found in the revealed Word of God. In this sense, he believed that everything should be regulated by Scripture. However, he did believe that he had freedom to use different musical forms and write new lyrics. Some of his contemporaries (and people today) believed this to be opening the door to man-made “worship.” For Luther, however, the church was free to utilize music in order to aid congregational involvement. The idea of a band on a stage, drowning out the voice of the congregation, is probably not what Luther had in mind. Chuck Fromm notes:

[The Reformers] objected to the distractions of elaborate vocal and instrumental music, the dangers of overly theatrical performances, the unwarranted expense of elaborate ceremonies and enormous pipe organs and the uselessness of text unintelligible to the common man. Contrasting with the high church’s entrenched musical traditions was the simple and pragmatic approach of men like Martin Luther. Luther’s stated goal was the restoration of true worship. He understood the tremendous benefit resulting from hearing the Word of God and then uniting as a congregation to offer thanksgiving in song. This stress on congregational participation in worship became a lynch-pin of the Reformation.

Matt Merker elaborates:

In order for the whole church to sing, Luther argued that the music must be intelligible. When it came to versification of the Psalms, [Luther said,] “Only the simplest and the most common words should be used. . . . at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt.” Rather than introduce too many new tunes at once, he employed well-known melodies that were easy to memorize. In advocating simplicity, Luther wasn’t calling for corporate praise to be dumbed down. Nor was he opposed to artistry. His prevailing concern was the whole congregation’s piety: “I desire to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of him who gave and created them.”

Clearly, Luther’s primary concern was that the church address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Luther view’s would have included the use of instruments, as an aid to congregational singing.

The Calvin Approach

John Calvin believed that the Word of God should be the sole basis for anything done in the corporate gathering of the church. He further believed that the Scripture regulated the very words that could be sung in the church. Richard Arnold explains:

Calvin’s enthusiasm for singing was subject to a crucial qualification: he restricted what was to be sung exclusively to the Psalms—these were, he writes in 1543, the songs provided by God and dictated by His Holy Spirit, and it would be presumptuous and sacrilegious for humankind to sing any words or arrangements of his or her own devising.

It appears that in addition to the Psalms, Calvin allowed other portions of Scripture to be sung. Contra Luther, Calvin believed that musical instruments had no place in New Testament congregational singing. There are no passages commanding instruments to be used in the New Testament church (though some would say “melody” in Ephesians 5:19 is just such an instance), therefore, he reasoned, they are forbidden. The Calvin Approach is that congregational singing is allowed, but it must be restricted to a cappella singing of the words of Scripture.

The Zwingli Approach

Huldrych Zwingli was an outstanding musician. Nevertheless, he “removed all music from the church in Zurich” (T. Johnson). Zwingli sought to operate based on the same principle as Calvin: unless it was specifically commanded in God’s Word, it had no place during the times when the church gathered together. He also had other concerns with music in the church service. W. Robert Godfrey explains:

Zwingli believed that music was too powerful and too emotional to be used in Christian worship. Under the strong influence of Platonic philosophy, he argued that music would too easily move people away from focusing on the Word and its meaning for them. As a result, in Zurich singing was eliminated from worship in Zwingli’s day. No musical instruments, no choirs and no congregational singing were permitted. In the place of singing, Zwingli had the congregation recite Scriptural passages antiphonally.

“Essentially, Zwingli did away with anything that was not specifically prescribed in Scripture” (D. Chow). The Zwingli approach is to keep all congregational singing out of the corporate gathering of the church.

Broadly speaking, those are the three approaches to congregational singing:

  1. Luther: congregational singing (inspired and uninspired songs) with instruments
  2. Calvin: congregational singing (inspired songs) without instruments
  3. Zwingli: no congregational singing

While that may seem strange, Zwingli was not alone. In fact there was a significant debate among Reformed Baptist a few years after the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith was approved. Benjamin Keach and Isaac Marlow debated this issue. Marlow argued there should be no congregational singing. Keach argued their should be. They, especially Marlow, wrote voluminously on the topic. And it is certainly interesting reading. Before commenting on how that debate turned out, let’s take a look at singing further back in church history.

The first thing I want to point out is that singing could properly be considered part of what is called “natural religion.” (This was actually a point of contention in the Keach-Marlow debate over congregational singing.) The idea here is that God has created man in his image and man is therefore inclined to do certain things in relation to his Creator. One clear example is prayer. The inclination to pray is not limited to Christians. The pagan sailors in the book of Jonah each “cried out to his god” for deliverance from the storm. Mormons pray, Muslims pray, Hindus pray, Buddhists pray. The difference between Christians and non-Christians isn’t that one prays and the other doesn’t. The difference is that one prays to the true God, through Christ, and the others pray to false gods.

It is the same with singing. The difference between Christians and non-Christians isn’t that one group sings and another doesn’t. God didn’t need to tell people to sing to their “gods.” Throughout human history, singing has been the natural response to the concept of God. Plutarch, a Roman writer who lived during the time of the Apostle Paul, attested to the fact that “the whole science of music was employed by the ancient Greeks in the worship of their gods” (Gill). John Gill concluded that “the Gentiles were by the light of nature directed, and by the law of nature obliged, to this part of worship; and consequently that it is a part of natural religion.” In Genesis 4:26, we read “at that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” Given humanity’s natural propensity to prayer and song, it is reasonable to conclude that this calling upon the name of the Lord was expressed in both prayer and song.

But let’s move ahead to the time of Moses. Before Moses receives the Law from God, he leads the people in song after they cross the Red Sea. He opens with, in Exodus 15:1, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” Gill notes that the Israelites sang this song, not because they were commanded to, but simply “according to the dictates of their consciences.” It is a natural response for mankind to pray when they are in distress and sing praises when they are delivered.

Of course, when God reveals himself through the Law and the Prophets, the book of Psalms were given to the people of God. They contain songs that were sung at specific feasts, festivals, and occasions of worship at the Temple. But they were also sung by the Jews in their homes and in their communities. The Psalms provided a songbook for all of life for all the people of God. (A little more on the Psalms in a moment.)

By the time we reach the period of Jesus’ earthly ministry, songs are still an important part of Jewish culture. Jesus attended weekly services in the synagogue. Jews couldn’t travel every week to the Temple. And even though the synagogue service was not specifically laid out in the Law like the Temple worship was, Jesus still attended the service weekly (Luke 4:16). A service in the synagogue generally went like this: psalms were sung, Scripture was read, a sermon was preached, and then a time of discussion followed. But Jesus also sang songs outside of the synagogue service. For example, after the Passover, as was the custom, Jesus and his disciples would have sung the Hallel, which is from Psalm 115-118 (cf. Matthew 26:30). And, of course, Paul and Silas, when in prison, were “praying and singing hymns to God.”

Once Christianity began to spread, and the Jews who believed in Christ were kicked out of the synagogues, they began meeting in homes. And it seems that, in their homes, they largely mirrored the general structure of the synagogue service. This makes sense to me for two reasons: (1) as mentioned previously, Jews living far away could not attend the Temple weekly; the synagogue meetings, however, occurred at least weekly in every town; and (2) the Temple was centered on the sacrificial system, which was brought to an end with Jesus’ sacrifice of himself. The Christians became known for gathering together, breaking bread, teaching about Christ, and singing hymns. Many of these hymns are believed to have been preserved in the New Testament (for example, see 1 Timothy 3:16).

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